It’s no surprise that the most unsettling story in the 1945 anthology Dead of Night is the concluding ventriloquist’s dummy tale featuring Micheal Redgrave. It’s of little shock that R.L Stine’s Goosebumps novels, and episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) have particularly memorable entries that involved ventriloquist dummies. We can go further and say a film about a serial killer named Charles Lee Ray is one thing but the idea that said criminal places his spirit into a child’s doll who then goes on a murderous rampage takes things up a notch in the sinister factor.
My last example may stretch my point slightly. Chucky from Child’s Play (1988) is technically not a ventriloquist dummy. But it doesn’t dismiss the main argument. Simply put: dolls are creepy. They inhabit a certain part of the uncanny valley which is hard to shake off. From their exaggerated features to the unnerving feeling that their lifeless eyes seem to follow you like an old painting. They look weird and once they start being placed in films in which they come alive and possessing bodies, they don’t become any less sinister.
Why on earth Richard Attenborough decided to launch his fedora into a psychologically horrific world of an unhinged magician with a ventriloquist dummy gimmick is beyond me. However, this toe-dipping into the pool of horror is an enjoyable ride. Magic’s marketing tagline shrieks that it’s a terrifying love story, and while psyche horror has made major advances since Attenborough’s dabbling in the sub-genre, he delivers enough with William Goldman’s script (adapted from his novel) to deliver a genuinely unsettling if not wholly terrifying feature.
Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, a troubled magician who at the request of his dying mentor picks up a new gimmick as a ventriloquist, garnering a new height in fame with his net “partner” named Fats. Corky’s agent Ben (Burgess Meredith) has his sights set on getting Corky on TV. Being a ventriloquist sets Corky apart from the other magicians. Why? When you’re gawping at the crude speaking dummy, you don’t wonder how a magic trick works. However, when Ben asks Corky to take the medical exam, the mentally damaged Corky feels his best bet is to retreat to his childhood home in the Catskills, where he reunites with a high school flame Peggy (Ann-Margret). Although married, Peggy sees a chance of a fresh start in her rekindled relationship with Corky. Not everyone seems happy with the arrangement, however, and more time with the girl means less time with your showbiz partner. It’s at this point things take a turn for the weird.
Magic opens with the famous fox logo ident; a melancholy moment due to the recent outcome of the studio, now absorbed by the house of mouse. That feeling never really leaves. There’s an air of damnation that looms over the film, like a large tragic storm cloud. We first meet Corky lying badly about his flop of a gig to this mentor, a man who has clearly seen better days. The film never really lets up from there, and while the posters and adverts enjoy leaning on the creepiness of Fats the doll, Magic is really tied up in arrested development and past regret. Jerry Goldsmith’s formidable score does a valiant job of warning us of when the film will take dark turn, but the real pull often comes from watching Hopkins and Margret forging a brittle relationship that already feels shaky from the start of an intense card trick which plays an unstated but pivotal moment later on in the narrative.
Ann-Margaret is solid here, playing the type of homely housewife that she is not known for. While it’s still difficult to believe a woman who looks like she does would simply wile away her life in a barely frequented lodge up in the back end of the Catskills, she’s able to bring across a look in her eye which exclaims “that’s the point” through certain moments of the film. It’s hard to imagine that a Peggy would be interested in the clearly unhinged Corky, but part of the fun of Magic is in watching Hopkins see where he can push the boundaries of oddness in an early part. It’s the kind of role that one could see a younger Attenborough himself play, as far too many forget that as an actor he was just at home with Pinky from Brighton Rock (1948) or serial killer John Christie in 10 Rillington Place as he was with the cuddly elderly characters that viewers of this writer’s generation vividly remember him for. To see Hopkins let loose in a crazed psychological role which isn’t Hannibal Lector is riveting, and his dubious accent work is overshadowed by his commitment to the gig. If anything, his uneven accent only adds to the disconcerting tone.
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Hopkins’ dedicated performance also clouds over one of the film’s main faults in the patchiness of Corky’s backstory. The spottiness of some of Corky’s history including details as to why Corky is so disturbed seems less like a fractured unraveling of a broken mind and more like Goldman’s script being reshaped to fit a film with limited running time. Magic has a running time similar to the Goldman scripted Misery (1990), yet Reiner is far more efficient with his storytelling in contrast to Attenborough, although both movies are fascinated by how repression can take its toll on a damaged mind.
And what of Fats? The dead-eyed dummy who is plastered over all of Magic‘s marketing certainly captures some of the movie’s strongest moments. This includes the infamous “5 minutes” scene in which Corky must interact with Ben without referring to Fats at all. The movement of the camera to highlight a moment of a personality “taking over” is still rather remarkable to watch in its simplicity. Fat’s antics seem to nod to Dead of Night and The Great Gabbo (1929), but William Goldman states explicitly in the disc extras that they do not. Like with so many genre films however, it’s difficult to shake certain connections, especially when they seem so strong. Tonally the drawn-out fragile tone inhabited by the characters feels closer to a film like That Cold Day in the Park (1969) or Psycho (1960) as opposed to the aforementioned, earlier movies. By the film’s tragic conclusion, there’s a feeling that Attenborough was more invested in the sadness surrounding Corky than the cheap, crass thrills of Fats.
The Blu-ray’s puff piece extras don’t really add too much to proceedings. It’s good to see the late William Goldman detailing the difference in the novel’s storytelling as opposed to the movie. We get a glut of interviews from Anthony Hopkins along with a good ten minutes with Victor J Kemper talking about the look of the film. It’s a shame that there’s no talk about Jerry Goldsmith’s delightfully eerie score which comes a year before his BAFTA-nominated score for one of cinema’s seminal horror films: Alien (1979). The film’s extras aren’t particularly standout, but with consideration of the age its participants, with many key players being no longer with us, just having some of these conversations on disc holds a certain comfort.
Magic is out on Blu-ray on 23rd March from Second Sight Films.